Podcast: Challenges and Benefits of VR Integration with Lucy and Jenny

Contributors Lucy Mattout and Jenny Wallisch discuss ways in which VR is being integrated into the performing arts industry. They explore the challenges and benefits of using VR, and how it can affect the audience’s perception of a live performance experience.


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Intro: Hello AMT-Lab Listeners. This is Ashley Anderson, Chief Technology Manager of the Arts Management and Technology Laboratory and on today’s episode of the AMT-Lab podcast series I sat down with Lucy Mattout and Jenny Wallisch, two contributors of the AMT-Lab website to discuss their research on VR usage in performing arts organizations. Enjoy!

Ashley Anderson: I'm here with Lucy Mattout and Jenny Wallisch, contributors to the AMT-Lab website and today we are talking about their individual research tracks, which are both focused on the use of VR in the performing arts. Jenny, do you want to go ahead and introduce yourself and give us a little brief overview of your research right now?

Jenny Wallisch: Hi, I'm Jenny Wallisch. I'm a second year Master of Arts Management student here at Carnegie Mellon, and my, my focus in the Arts Management track is mostly in operations and general management. My research focus for this project is on virtual reality as a means of getting people into the space who are not already there. So basically, live streaming through virtual reality.

AA: Great, and Lucy.

Lucy Mattout: Hi, my name is Lucy Mattout. I'm a second year Master of Arts Management student with a focus on Theatre Arts. My research topic is focused on the different uses of immersive technology in the performing arts industry.

AA: Great. Thank you. So, Lucy, my first question is for you. You state in your paper that while VR and performing arts is evolving, there are challenges and benefits that have yet to be discovered? Could you discuss some of those benefits and challenges?

LM: Yeah. So, one of the challenges that I'm encountering a lot is, is related to the expense of these, of purchasing these technologies themselves, and the fact that when you start involving too much technology into your performance does it really take away from what a traditional theater performance is or a traditional dance is? Because at that point, you're adding into VR, and you're breaking into the film industry as well. So, a lot of the boundaries between industries are breaking with these sort of technologies, and that creates challenges, and

it starts blending the name and the definition of each of those.

AA: Yeah, so you both mentioned the live factor being what makes a theatre-going experience, and while VR may be used as a way to grow audiences, do you see it as sort of a double-edged sword? Like when someone has experienced a performance via VR, how will that directly translate them into participating in a live performance?

JW: Well, I don't know what you think but…about this, but I would say that there is still that, like VR can be used as an entry point because while you can imitate that feeling of liveness and the feeling of being there, it's never going to be exactly the same, and the feeling that you get from being in the live performance space is ultimately going to be a different one.

AA: Right.

LM: Yeah, talking about VR, specifically, when you put a 360 degree video online, a lot of the things I'm finding in my research are that the companies are trying to use these videos for people that have a bad view of what orchestras are, or the orchestra experience or feel intimidated by coming to the performance space, as an entry point so that they would feel more comfortable and that they would understand better what the experience is like before they attend.

AA: Right, yeah, I get that. What my question is kind of saying, though, like, could that backfire? Could that be a thing that somebody gets comfortable experiencing it only in the VR way, and doesn't actually translate into them coming to a live performance? So, if they're like, “well, if I can just get this live stream to my home device, and I can enjoy the orchestra from my sofa, why would I leave and go?” Like, what is what is the benefit to that person, then, to coming to a live experience? Like we know, because we're in this, and our listeners know, because they’re arts managers as well, what that benefit of a live experiences, and we can talk about that a little later in our discussion because I do have a few questions about that as well. But just wondering…Um, yeah, like if somebody is enjoying the VR version, what is going to entice them to abandon that and come join the live performance space eventually, if that's the goal?

LM: Um, I think that's a big question. I haven't seen a lot of answers as to that, because this is a very new kind of thing. I think Jenny might have a little more to say about that. But

in my opinion, it could go both ways.

AA: Yeah.

LM: I think that you can have a person that sees it and wants to experience it live, and a person that sees it and it’s better doing that. And that's also, as Netflix is starting to offer more of these kinds of things, it would be the same problem. So, I would say is a problem and an opportunity.

JW: I have a hard time saying exactly how you might be able to convince them if they are enjoying the VR experience to come into the space. I would say though, that the VR experience is ultimately always going to be more of a supplement than a replacement, of the actual event. Because I feel like there has to be, for the event to feel live, there has to be people physically in the space, and even when you're in the VR headset, there has to be people around like actual people that you can feel the connection with. Otherwise, it's just, it's not the same. It's just watching a movie essentially.

AA: Right.

JW: But like, while VR live streaming is still relatively new, there really isn't a whole lot of examples of theater or live performance being live streamed through VR. There are examples of live streams of theatre shows such as National Theatre live, and that's not overshadowing their actual attendance. It's more of a supplement.

AA: Okay. Yeah, because that was something else I was sort of thinking about was like

would this be yet another barrier for arts managers to navigate, in order to reach those new audiences? So essentially, kind of creating, I'm trying not to use like a, like a divisive language here, but kind of creating equal yet separate performances. So, like having the live performance for the for those who want to attend the theater, and then having any equally great

VR performance for those who do not wish to attend the theater. But in a way that like, that is a new challenge then. It’s…so you have to, you have to program two completely different things for two completely different types of audience instead of using the VR as the tool to engage this new audience to join your existing audience. You see what I mean?

LM: And one of the things that is important for, for managers considering this kind of application to consider is that Maryland Opera Studio mentioned how the cameras… and putting all those cameras surrounding the live performance might also be a factor you need to consider, as it may affect the audience that he's attending the live performance. So, you have to think of how are you going to hide those cameras, but make them visible enough so that the audience that is attending live doesn't, doesn't think that they're wasting their money, and they have all these…

AA: Right. All these extra… ephemera that they don't need.

LM: Show blocks.

AA: Yeah, exactly, exactly. So, Jenny, in your paper, you do mention the sense of community in the live theater experience that may be lost in a VR experience, referencing the dimming of the lights, the hushing of the audience, the applause, etc. and Lucy, you talked about how VR can be used for patients in a hospital who are unable to attend a performance. So, kind of a thought I had of like bridging these, I'm wondering if either of you have found in your research attempts to replicate the entire experience in VR. So including, like, you know, audible stimuli such as like, applause, or like your fellow theater goers’ conversations dying down, and like the orchestra warming up and like all these different things, that when you're in a live experience, are all of your stimuli, and maybe even when you put on the headset, the house lights dim, and you get that whole sensation. Have either of you found anything in yours research that suggests that there are attempts to make a fully immersive experience like that?

JW: I'm not entirely sure if it's possible to do a fully-fully immersive experience with 360 video recordings of the show or 360 video live streams, but you do get a lot of those same sensations luckily. Like if you have headphones on your headset, or if you have headphones plugged into your phone. If you're using one of those kinds of headsets, you can still hear the audience hush, and you can see the lights dim out of the corners of your eyes. So, it's not it's not gone, it's just not quite as present.

AA: Mm hmm, okay.,

LM: Yeah, in addition to that, one of the articles I read, again, from the Maryland Opera Studio was that they, they try to give the person using the VR experience the view of before when the orchestra is warming up and where they're preparing, and they have a special kind of video that goes into behind the stage and it puts them in the center while they're practicing or in the audience. So, they are playing with different placements. But it's not fully immersive, as Jenny said. I think it still needs some work.

AA: Mm hmm. Are there any VR experiences that are happening while you are in a live setting? So, like, I'm kind of thinking of… Maybe it was one of you that found that, found that news article with those crazy operas that were happening with like the…

LM: The holograms?

AA: Yeah, yeah, was that your article?

LM: Yes!

AA: Okay. So, I'm imagining something like that but with a VR experience. So, where it's like, so that it's more… like you're in it more. It's not just like separate from the, you know, the end of the stage into the audience. It’s like the audience member can now be like, almost on that same stage with the characters. Are there any, anything like that out there being explored?

LM: From your home?

AA: No, like, like if you were in the theater…

LM: Or you mean the performance?

AA: … And you can opt into doing a VR headset while you're in the audience and it'll take you into the performance, like actually in it, on the stage, without you being there on the stage. Like, you're in the audience, feeling like you're on the stage, but you're not on the stage.

LM: Interesting.

JW: I haven't seen anything quite like that. The closest thing I came across was, like in terms of having headsets in the audience, was a National Geographic Live is doing talks where all of the audience gets to put on headsets and they get transported around the world to see these pictures from the various nature photographers.

AA: Cool. That's cool.

JW: I haven't seen anything like that for theatre though, or opera, where you can actually put on a headset and be in the performance, aside from immersive shows like A Christmas Carol.

LM: Yeah, Chained.

AA: Explain that one in case somebody, including myself since I’m not a performing arts person…

LM: Chained (Chained: A Victorian Nightmare) is a show that came out in 2017. It's from Madison Wells Media, which is a performing arts with immersive technology group. And basically, what it does, is a single person experience. It lasts about 25 minutes. The audience member puts a VR headset, and headphones, and there is only one actor. And that actor is all of the ghosts from A Christmas Carol. But, through the headphones, the voice is distorted so that each character has a different voice, and he has motion capture sensors in his body, so that you will be able to see different images in your VR headset as he changes characters. And the actor… the audience member is the main character in the play, so the actor drags them and takes them through A Christmas Carol as if they were the main character meeting all these ghosts.

AA: Right.

JW: And I think the main difference between Chained and what you're talking about is that the audience is actually moving around. So rather than being in their seats and being projected through a 360-camera on-stage, they're actually being led through a physical location, but they're seeing A Christmas Carol around them.

AA: Right. Okay, I just pulled it up… where it was launched was in Los Angeles. Because as so I feel like there's we might be getting off topic here, but I feel like there's a lot of this this single person being led by an actor VR experiences that are happening specifically in LA, because I know that… Is it this one? (computer keys clicking) Dreamscape… is that the one that’s kind of a horror story that we read about in class also?

LM: Yes, I think so. So, there is a couple. And there is there is one touring in London too.

AA: Okay. Is that the jack the Ripper one?

LM: No, this one's called Draw Me Close… But it’s VR and motion capture. So that gets into a different territory of how you use VR. There is one that is not with motion capture.

AA: Okay.

LM: But that's more haunted houses coming together with theater, and you are wearing the VR headset and going through a haunted house.

AA: Right.

LM: Things will pop up.

AA: Right.

LM: It's not quite either or it's in the middle.

JW: Is it virtual reality? Or is it like mixed reality?

LM: Mixed reality? I think you're right.

JW: ‘Cause they can still see where they're walking?

LM: No, no, no, they are actually completely handicapped, they can't see a thing.

JW: Okay.

LM: They, they kind of just, they have this set, they can’t see a thing, and they have to hold each other's hands to get out of the room, and that's the whole experience. And then in some of them, they give them like laser tag guns and they have to shoot at things. It's, it's pretty wild. I want to do it.

AA: I want to do it too.

JW: I feel like that's one of the major challenges, though, with using VR in immersive theater is safety. Because, like, you can't see where you're going whenever you have a big headset


LM: Yeah. And so that's why they add the actor.

AA & JW: Mm hmm.

AA: Yeah, it's more for the guidance. So, let me ask the question… To wrap up, why don't you tell us a little bit about where you're going, what you're going to be focusing on as you move towards writing your final paper for AMT-Lab?

LM: Okay, so, for my final paper, I will be focusing on the question of, is it worth it for a theater to implement immersive technology? I'm not only studying the 360 VR experience itself, but also motion capture technology with VR, or augmented reality projections or app technology, these sorts of things. So, the kind of things I'm looking into are, what does it cost, and what are some things that you should consider if your organization is thinking about it?

AA: Okay, great. Jenny?

JW: Um, there are a couple things that I'm going to be looking into as an expansion on my previous paper. One of the things is to delve deeper into community and specifically communitas and how that's created in the theater environment, which is like… communitas is like, it's the community in the short term. It's that sense of immediate community that then disappears when you leave.

AA: Okay. The shared experience.

JW: Exactly.

AA: Okay.

JW: And I also want to delve more into the accessibility of VR, because part of my focus is on using VR, like 360 video live streaming as a way to cross some of the barriers to theater attendance. And while it can help some people, VR headsets can get expensive unless you're going for like the $20 Google Cardboard. So, that's one of the things I want to look at as price points of different headsets and systems, and also where they fall in regards to are they just for like live streaming, like videos or for any kind of 360 degree video experience? Or are they full VR gaming headsets?

AA: Okay, great. Well, I'm sure our AMT-Lab listeners can look forward to reading your final papers in the coming weeks or so. And thank you both for talking with me today.

JW & LM: Thank you.

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Outgoing Message: Thanks for listening to the Arts Management and Technology Lab Podcast Series. You can read more on the intersection between the arts and technology at www.amt-lab.org . Or you can listen to more interviews and discussions in our podcast series on iTunes, Spotify, GooglePlay, or Stitcher. Thank you for joining us.